The British philosopher Roger Scruton once made a brilliant observation: the paradox of effective politics, he wrote (and I’m paraphrasing) is that by focusing on politics we free ourselves from politics. That is, the point of politics is that by electing a group of people to fight over wars, budgets, and how we order our lives together, the rest of us are free to pursue other interests. We can go to movies, read books, fall in love. Scruton’s observation is similar to George Will praising low voter turnout, which he noted could be a sign that people are basically happy or at least have enough of the virtue of humility that they don’t expect heaven on earth.
However, in the last few years it’s become increasingly difficult to find spaces where politics are kept outside the door. Part of it is caused by what is called “the paradox of progress”–that the more our lives become comfortable and (relatively) pain free, the more we refuse to tolerate the smallest inconvenience. A hundred years ago a toothache was slow death and most families had children who had died young; these days people throw hissy fits if there’s a long line at the Apple store. And if there is a long line at the Apple store, or our Starbucks coffee is too hot and we get burned, then someone has to pay or get sued. And, of course, politicians need to get involved. Thus Mayor Bloomberg’s ban of the Big Gulp.
But perhaps the most obnoxious contributor to the political infiltration of everyday life is the political cable show. Chris Matthews, Sean Hannity, Rachel Maddow, and the rest of the talking heads need to fill an hour every day as well as get ratings, and that has increasingly meant conjuring up an air of crisis. Thus, everyday they breathlessly report that the politician they hate has just done something that will mean global warming, starving children, and post-nasal drip. The day after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, I was driving to a used record store when I heard Sean Hannity on the radio mention the word impeachment. The confetti from the Obama celebrations hadn’t even stopped falling and Hannity was gearing up for impeachment. Meanwhile, they are starting a suicide watch on Andrew Sullivan if Mitt Romney wins the election. Don’t these people ever think about anything other than politics?
Sadly, no. For them, politics has replaced God, and therefore all the nonpolitical things that involve the world God has made–and the creatures he made to inhabit it. One of my favorite books is On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs by the great Georgetown Jesuit James V. Schall. In it, Schall argues that we are truly closest to God when we have the humility to admit that in the end the political things that we obsess over in this life may not be that important. I’m not talking about abortion, or preventing war, or protecting women’s rights in repressive countries, or even passing sensible traffic laws, but rather the manic state that some journalists and political junkies get into where changing the tax rate from 35.6% to 34.7% is worth addressing and devoting over an hour of rabid TV shouting to only to be repeated the next day, and the day after.
In On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, Fr. Schall argues that when we are dancing, making love, reading books or gardening, we are actually doing our most soulful and important work. Because these things reveal our acceptance of our limitations, and the limitations of our political aspirations. They say that in the end God is in charge, and that letting go and going to have a beer with friends is a vital acknowledgment of that. In one section of his book, Fr. Schall cites a story told by Plato. On a walk to a religious shrine in Crete, a soldier and statesman named Klinias talks with someone Plato identifies as the Athenian Stranger. The Athenian Stranger says that man is like a “plaything,” and that this is the best thing about us. Klinias, who in the modern world might be Rachel Maddow, is confused and put off by this comment. What do you mean man “is not the measure of all things”? Plato’s response: “But the fact is that in war there is not and will not be by nature either play, or again, an education that is at any time worthy of our discussion; yet this is what we assert is, at least for us, the most serious thing. Each person should spend the greatest and best part of his life in peace. What then is the correct way? One should live out one’s days playing at certain games–sacrificing, singing, and dancing.”
That’s what we should all do on November 7, no matter what the election result. And we should not return to Hannity or Maddow or Rush for a good, long time.